Nova Scotia mass shooting unleashes conflict questions, legal game of cat and mouse

Nova Scotia justice minister's 32-year career with RCMP raises issues about the independence of public inquiry called into the case

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      A second batch of search warrant documents related to the RCMP’s investigation into the Nova Scotia mass shooting is expected to be released on September 4.

      But it won’t be until at least mid-November that the public will see all the information used by the RCMP to obtain search warrants in the case.

      Information used to obtain seven search warrants has been released. A court in Nova Scotia heard on Wednesday that information related to six more search warrants are ready for release.

      But that will be up to a judge. And as with other documents released so far in the case, key parts of the information will be redacted.

      Media outlets led by the CBC have been trying since May to have search warrant documents related to the case released in full.

      But provincial and federal Crown attorneys handling the case say that would compromise the RCMP’s investigation into the shooting. They have also raised privacy issues related to individuals named in the documents.

      The situation has unleashed a protracted legal game of cat and mouse over redacted information.

      That has involved a complicated three-stage process, which has included in-camera hearings and public proceedings in court.

      RCMP Sargeant Angela Hawryluk took the stand in a Nova Scotia courtroom as part of a public part of the proceedings last Wednesday. It’s her signature that appears on affidavits sworn by the RCMP to obtain some 23 search warrants in the case.

      Her testimony made for some testy back and forth with David Coles, the lawyer representing the CBC et al.

      Coles asked Hawryluk why the name of a forensic anthropologist hired by the RCMP had to be redacted. How would the release of that individual’s name compromise the RCMP’s investigation?

      Hawryluk acknowledged under cross-examination that the release of the name would not compromise the RCMP’s investigation. She also acknowledged that the safety of the individual involved would not be compromised.

      But the issue of protection of individuals has also been offered as another reason for the redactions by Crown attorneys handling the case.

      Information related to seven search warrant documents has been ordered released by the court.

      Recently unredacted information in those has revealed explosive details. Among them: that gunman Gabriel Wortman was involved in smuggling guns and opioids from the United States.

      Other published reports have already raised questions about what the RCMP knew about the gunman prior to his rampage. With each new revelation, the RCMP’s handling of the case has come under increasing scrutiny.

      Questions of conflict of interest

      There has been no timeline, meanwhile, offered on the terms of reference for a public inquiry announced on July 28. Those terms of reference will determine the scope of the inquiry.

      The office of Public Safety Minister Bill Blair referred questions about that from NOW to Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey.

      But Heather Fairbairn, a spokesperson for Furey’s office, says they have “no further information to share at this time” on the terms of reference—or conflict of interest questions raised by Nova Scotia PC party leader Tim Houston.

      Houston has asked the province’s Conflicts Commissioner to investigate whether Furey should be removed from the inquiry process. Furey is a former RCMP officer. He served as a unit commander in Nova Scotia during a 32-year tenure on the force.

      Houston wrote to Blair on August 12 to raise the issue. And question what he described as efforts by the Nova Scotia government and the feds to “dilute” the review process into the shooting.

      The feds and province had initially announced a simple review of the shooting. But public outcry by the families of some of the victims forced the government to call a full public inquiry.

      Houston’s letter goes on to question the three-person panel proposed for the inquiry. The feds have appointed J. Michael MacDonald, Nova Scotia’s former Chief Justice, to chair the panel. Leanne Fitch, a former chief of police of the Fredericton police force, is a second appointee.

      Houston argues for a five-member panel, with at least three appointees from out of province.

      “It is essential that this inquiry be conducted by an independent and impartial body, free of bias or political interference,” Houston writes.

      The PC leader says that the inquiry should also be looking into “the role of confidential informants within the RCMP and an analysis on whether the shooter was an informant; his historic involvement with the RCMP; and his engagement with them during the period he was active on April 18 and 19.”

      The RCMP has already publicly denied any connection to Wortman.

      But the speculation persists about why the RCMP seemingly did nothing to respond to concerns expressed by neighbours that Wortman kept a stockpile of weapons.